Recent research published by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) found that, compared to traditional classes, students tended to perform worse academically in online classes — suggesting that students had “difficulty adapting” to online learning. Perhaps even more startling, students of color and men fared the worst.
“Specifically, we found that males, Black students, and students with lower levels of academic preparation experienced significantly stronger negative coefficients for online learning compared with their counterparts, in terms of both course persistence and course grade,” authors Di Xu and Shanna Jaggars, who looked at the data from 40,000 community college students in Washington state, wrote in the report. “This is troubling from an equity perspective: If this pattern holds true across other states and educational sectors, it would imply that the continued expansion of online learning could strengthen, rather than ameliorate, educational inequity.”
Online learning has been hailed as the savior, or possibly the demise, of higher education as we know it. The New York Times labeled 2012 the “year of the MOOC” or the massive open online courses. The idea is that high-quality research institutions like Harvard, MIT or Stanford can push out their courses to folks across the Internet, giving them access to learning previously barricaded by university walls and high-priced tuition. But this new research indicates that it might be too soon to start the online revolution.
“Our feeling is that technology can be used in good ways to improve online courses, it’s just that it depends how the technology is incorporated and how technology is used by instructors,” Xu, a PhD student in Economics and Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, told Raw Story on Thursday. “Technology alone, it can not help students automatically. It depends on how it is integrated into instruction to make it work.”
When asked if new technology might improve online learning, Xu said they actually looked into that. “So we were thinking that as technology [improved], probably students might benefit more, or be subject to less negative impact in online courses. However, we didn’t find substantial variations across years, students are just doing worse in online courses, no matter which year they’re enrolling.”
One interesting finding was that older students seemed to fare better than other students with online courses, but they still didn’t perform as well as with face-to-face courses.
“If they’re working full time, if they have kids, this is a way for them to add flexibility to their schedules and be able to take more courses than they could otherwise,” Jaggars, assistant director at CCRC, told Raw Story. “But, right now they’re paying a little bit of penalty in order to be able to do that.”
“We found that what the students really wanted more of was a connection with their instructor. They wanted more guidance from their instructor. They wanted their instructor to be able to help motivate them with their passion and their caring for their students and how the students did,” Jaggars continued. “The thing about college students, you know, they come in with a lot of anxiety and insecurity about whether college is the right place for them, whether they can do this kind of work, they need an instructor that’s really supportive and enthusiastic about the material and communicates that enthusiasm to the students.
“If you think about a MOOC, you know, 200,000 students, and one instructor, I’m not really sure how that, you know, how that connection can be made,” Jaggars said.
This means that online courses, which have been hailed as a cost-saving measure in an era when tuition growth continues to outpace tuition by multiple factors, may not be as cheap as many believe. One factor Xu identified as a potential for further research is actually cost effective: “I feel like one thread of study is to just find out if online courses, conditional that the quality similar to face-to-face courses, if it actually is cheeper.”
She aslo expressed desire to determine which factors actually improved learning outcomes in online courses. Rather than breaking down higher education as we know it overnight, it seems as if there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to online courses.
“We would add that we’re not anti-online learning,” Jaggars continued. “We feel like it’s an important tool, but it needs improvement, so we need to understand how in order to make that tool work as well as possible for all the people who need it.”
Kay Steiger is the managing editor of Raw Story. Her contributions have appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Campus Progress, The Guardian, In These Times, Jezebel, Religion Dispatches, RH Reality Check, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @kaysteiger.
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